At some point in our lives as parents, we all worry about bullying and the effects it will have on our children. We hope against hope that it won’t happen to our kids, but, inevitably, it does. For some of us, our kids tend to be the victims of bullying. For others, our kids witness bullying and feel helpless to stop it. Some of our kids can even be accused of bullying. When confronted with their hurt, fear, and confusion, we struggle with how to talk to them constructively about bullying. What can we say to help equip our children for dealing with the harsh reality of bullying?
Ultimately, as parents, we have a responsibility to teach our kids not only to speak up for what is right but also to have the courage to speak out against what is wrong. Refusing to participate in an attack, or turning a blind eye to bullying, isn’t enough. Silence isn’t enough.
Unfortunately, our children live in a world where bullying occurs on a regular basis. It’s called school. Bullying happens at any age. It just does. Kids struggle with impulse control, and they often feel powerless. Bullies learn from their parents and peers who to pick on based on a complex sorting system that weighs popularity, social capital, economic status, disability, race, and many other factors. On the flip side, kids who fall prey to bullies learn from their parents and teachers (hopefully) how to cope with bullies effectively.
Here’s what we need our kids to know: our silence gives strength to bullies.
It’s easy to want to avoid attracting attention to ourselves when bullying isn’t happening to us. We turn the other cheek. We say nothing. Bullies then assume our silence means we accept their behavior. They think they can get away with it. They escalate. Eventually, they come for us, too.
We need to teach our kids to be intolerant of bullies. We need to teach them that being polite only applies to the good of heart and the well-behaved in our society and our schools. We need to empower our children to speak up. To say something and call out the cruel behavior is the only way to combat a culture of hatred and fear.
It’s not even a hard lesson to teach. Three magical words, while simple, have the power to stop bullies in their tracks and change our culture for the better: “That’s not okay.”
These three words, this tool, give our children all the power they need to be brave, set limits, and speak up. Bullies thrive on the fear of their victims and the silence of onlookers. By teaching our children to say “that’s not okay” both when they experience bullying and when they witness it, we give them the opportunity to hold real power.
Looking someone in the eye and saying “that’s not okay” at the moment when their behavior crosses a line into bullying causes them to pause and to consider the challenge. This approach calls attention to the problem, openly, fairly, and honestly. Saying these words to a bully starts a conversation by telling them, in that moment, they are wrong. It puts the offense squarely where it belongs – outside of the norm.
To preserve our children’s safety, it’s important to help them practice, to talk them through situations and examples, and to encourage them to enlist the help of adults – teachers, classroom assistants, guidance counselors, nurses, school bus drivers, lunchroom staff, and afterschool care providers – during these confrontations.
Movies offer a rich and safe way to practice anti-bullying skills. Cinderella, in case you’ve never noticed, is the ultimate story of domestic violence and bullying. Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters heap emotional abuse, psychological cruelty, and physical neglect on this poor orphaned young woman. In particular, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action version serves as an excellent tool for practicing “that’s not okay”. I found myself pausing the movie at about every other line, turning to my children, and saying “that’s not okay, and here’s why”.
Beauty and the Beast helps us teach children the true meaning of ugliness. Ugliness, just like beauty, comes from inside and has nothing to do with looks. In the beginning, the witch curses the prince to make his exterior match his arrogant and ungracious behavior towards her. Her curse is the ultimate expression of “that’s not okay”. As Belle’s presence and positive example help the Beast evolve into a good and decent creature capable of self-sacrifice, she falls in love with his inner goodness. After all, isn’t the Beast kind of cute in the end, goofily crouched and feeding birds from his hand? It’s almost a disappointment when he turns back into a handsome prince.
While the power of words is important, sometimes, to get bullies to leave you alone for good, you may need to match their strength.
Five years ago, when my son was in kindergarten and just learning impulse control like the rest of his peers, another boy walked up and down the lunch line pretending to punch each child in the stomach. When the victims of this boy’s threats flinched, he laughed at them and moved on.
Watching these events unfold, my son, outraged at the injustice of this boy’s actions, stepped out of line, walked up to him, and actually punched him in the stomach. To this day, I don’t know where the adults were or why they weren’t paying attention. All I know is that I received a call from the school guidance counselor after both boys had been hauled into her office.
I asked her only two questions:
- Did the kid stop bullying the other children after my son punched him?
- Where were the adults?
I rendered her speechless.
We need to back our kids up. They will sometimes get actions wrong. They are kids, after all, still growing, relatively uninitiated in the ways of the world, headstrong, and impulsive. As a result, it’s important to pay attention to their intent.
On that day, my son stood up for every kid in that lunch line who was being threatened by that other boy, even though that boy hadn’t reached him yet. He still knew the bully would come for him eventually, and he stood up for himself, and everyone else. As a 5-year-old, words failed him, but his actions still said, “that’s not okay”.
While I do not condone violence, and I did give him a hefty consequence for his actions, I still commended his intent. He isn’t the kid who started trouble. He was the kid who stopped it. Based on the power of his own conscience, he made a choice to be brave and to stand up to a bully, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of all of his classmates. That deserved my praise. I then taught him, next time, to say “that’s not okay”.